Living the Dream: Robin Clark and Carlos Alomar Remember David Bowie and Luther Vandross
"Then we got to a point in our lives when we met David Bowie … and I didn’t even know who David Bowie was."
The 'Young Americans' Sessions With David Bowie
From what I understand Robin, you and Luther came onto the Young Americans (1975) session by happenstance.
Clark: I spoke to Carlos the day he went down to Sigma Sound. I asked Carlos if I could bring Luther to hang out. Hanging out in the studio was better than going to a party!
Alomar: We were in this fabulous hotel in Rittenhouse Square called the Barclay, and I had negotiated a real nice per-diem, so I said “Sure”.
Clark: Luther and I didn’t know that we were going to stay. We were just there for a visit. Yet, we found ourselves in Sigma listening to the tracks for “Young Americans”. When the chorus section approached, Luther leaned over to me and sang "Young Americans, young Americans …" He said, "What do you think of that?" We just started singing it in the chorus.
Alomar: They were always harmonizing.
Clark: We used to walk down the street singing. Carlos used to try and run away from us. (laughs) It was what we naturally did. We weren’t doing it for David to hear us and hire us. That was the furthest thing from our minds.
It’s like you couldn’t turn it off. Singing is what you did.
Clark: Exactly. David leaned over the board and said, "Can you sing that again?" so we sang it again. By then, Tony Visconti was there as well. David said, "Would you mind recording it?" And that was that.
Alomar: Robin and Luther were almost apologetic: "We’re sorry that we disturbed …" David said, "No, no, really … Sing it again. It’s fabulous."
Clark: At that time it was just Luther, myself, Ava (Cherry) and Warren Peace in the studio. Diane (Sumler) and Anthony (Hinton), Luther’s background singers, would arrive later.
Alomar: Robin didn’t even have extra clothes packed.
Clark: For three days Luther and I wore the same clothes that we had arrived in. (laughs) We wound up staying because David was so enthusiastic. First of all, we gave him the vocal concept. He had these lyrics but he didn’t have background parts. David asked Luther if he had any songs. Luther had a song called "Funky Music". He played it on the piano for David and David asked him if he could change the lyrics to "Fascination". Luther said yes and so they rewrote the song.
To me, the complexity of the call-and-response vocal section on "Right" is so thrilling.
Clark: At that point in my career I had done a lot, but I had never worked in that way. Luther helped on "Right" quite a bit. David knew where he wanted things to go. He came in and worked on those parts with us. We had the soulfulness of it, but we didn’t have the cadence or the timing of where things were supposed to fall. David wrote a chart for us. To this day, I still have a copy of that chart. It’s a bunch of words, dots, and dashes! David would coach us with: "You’re singing here, you’re out there, you’re back in here, you’re out over there." He had this all in his head. I had never seen anything like that, but I got it and so did Luther. It was David’s language.
Alomar: I appreciated David having a sequential, linear methodology, but the minute they got it, they were singing in perfect harmony! That was crazy. But that’s how it always was with Robin and Luther.
"Win" is the song on Young Americans that just sends me.
Alomar: "Win" is a tearjerker for me too. There's a tonality that we crafted for that song. We did a lot of experimentation with sounds. The neutron bi-phaser pedal was new at that time, so I brought that with me. It added this creamy, almost ethereal dream-like doubling sound to the guitar. David Sanborn had this wave-like digital delay on his saxophone as well. The reverberation was toned just right. And I must state that it took so much work to make sure that the tones hit the mark emotionally, because David's words were riding on the wave of emotion created by these tones.
When I hear "Win", I close my eyes. I do not want the distraction of whatever I’m looking at to get in the way of how that song makes me feel. I've often said that David doesn't care about the meaning of a song. He cares about the feeling that you get when you hear a song. How many times have we heard an interview or read an article about David and they're trying to make some philosophical statement about everything he says? I feel everybody has their own way of looking at things, but when you hear “Win” and you close your eyes, then you forget about the meaning. That feeling you get from "Win" takes you away. Those vocals say take me to church, please.
Robin, when you hear your voice on "Win" all these years later, what is stirred within you?
Clark: I cry. It's the combination of all the work and all the years, going back to that period and knowing that our intention was to make the best record that we could possibly make. To hear it now? You hear the intention. It speaks for itself.
Alomar: We already spoke about Luther and how he would arrange vocalists. Luther wanted Robin's voice out front because he knew the timbre that she had in her voice. When she sings certain notes, she almost cries them.
Clark: My timbre's like a horn. You can take one voice and put it above me, another voice sings beneath me, and I bring it all together because my tone is so broad. Luther knew that. By then, we had been singing together since we were in high school. Young Americans was a defining moment for us. Luther and I were in heaven. This was my high school friend. Look at where we were? We couldn’t believe what we were doing. This happened so quickly for us. We did the album and the next thing we knew, we were on the road.
When we toured with David, the Bowie fans were not ready for us. We opened at the Universal Amphitheatre in California. It was the first gig we did. I remember standing on the riser with Luther. A tomato flew right between us. Another time, an apple flew by. They did not want to see us. They were begging for David to come out. When David hit the stage, he garnered us the respect. He had such diehard fans, the same ones he has now. They listened and they got it … eventually.
Alomar: He really brought them into the next aspect of the music. Let go or be dragged!
Carlos, as a co-writer and a player on "Fame", how has the meaning of that song changed for you over the years?
Alomar: Well it hasn’t really, I mean for me. I never asked for fame, and don’t really care about it. I will always be true to my real self. What I want is respect for my musicianship. In retrospect, we can re-evalute what “Fame” means to musical history but as a musician, I'm playing the same music I was playing with James Brown. I play like I play … funky. Yes I can change it to suit a certain thing but funky is who I am. I play that kind of stuff when I'm just practicing. It is a part of my expression
Clark: The only difference is you co-wrote it, Carlos.
Alomar. Truly! What's it like to hear a song of mine on the airwaves for the first time? Unbelievable, nirvana. The impact of that time and that song on us was humongous. It allowed Robin and I to have a wonderful life. We're not looking for fame, just recognition. We're famous within our own realms.
That segues perfectly to something I wanted to discuss with Robin: singing on the first CHIC album. So many CHIC fans know and love you because of "Dance, Dance, Dance" and "Everybody Dance". I know that Luther contracted the vocalists on CHIC (1977) for Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards.
Clark: We’ve known Nile since the early '70s, since our first group Listen My Brother and Sesame Street.
Alomar: He was my sub. When I left Sesame Street, Nile got the gig.
Clark: Nile also knew that Luther and I sang together. At the time, there was another singer named Diva Gray, who was my best friend. Nile asked for another singer. Luther knew Diva, so we brought Diva. At the time that we recorded "Dance, Dance, Dance", there was really no CHIC. It was still a concept. "Yowsah, yowsah, yowsah"? All of us were like … really Nile? But that was part of what made the song. Luther was pivotal in creating that sound. Then we did "Everybody Dance" and everything came after that. Luther did many more CHIC records after me. I also sang on "Soup for One" (1982) and "CHIC Mystique" (1992). After we recorded "Dance, Dance, Dance", I went to visit Carlos in France. We were in a club and "Dance, Dance, Dance" came on! Who knew? It was a historic moment and we didn't even realize it.
Within the pantheon of dance music, CHIC is a style unto itself. There were so many people, specifically producers like Jacques Fred Petrus, who liberally appropriated CHIC's sound in groups like Change. In the early '80s, those records were getting as much play, if not more, than the records Nile and Bernard were actually producing for the CHIC Organization at the same time. People still wanted the CHIC sound, they just weren't necessarily hip to what Nile and Bernard were doing to expand that sound.
Alomar: Politically speaking, when you start looking at the advent of disco music and the backlash from rock and roll, it created a nuance within our culture that was so combative. It wasn't "east coast / west coast" but a real cultural divide as far as what we considered our underground, defining and re-defining what dance music was. I knew what a five-minute song was. Why? Because every song in the discos was five minutes long or longer. But if you were listening to the radio, nobody listens to a five-minute song. The radio songs were three-minutes long. In fact, the stuff that we were listening to in the discos when we'd go dancing would never be heard on the radio. If you were not into the dance scene, you were so out that it was crazy.